Venue: Wolverhampton Grand Theatre

Production Run: Mon 22 - Sat 27 May 2017

Performance Reviewed: Mon 22 May (Press Night)

Every medium has its own strengths and drawbacks. The immediacy of theatre brings its own unique thrills and intrigue where cinema boasts the versatility of the edit and the power of the close-up. 

Horror on stage is scarcely akin to that which we see on the silver screen, and perhaps rarely is this more apparent than with The Woman in Black. Where the 2012 Hollywood adaptation, fronted by Daniel Radcliffe, posited itself as a straight-up haunted house fable, this stage production (which preceded it) is a much savvier affair.

Taking a play-within-a-play approach that sort of breaks the fourth wall but doesn’t quite, (the programme tells us the events we watch are unfolding on the very same Wolverhampton stage ‘about one hundred years ago’), Woman in Black is instantly resourceful, and even witty, in its invitation to have the audience do much of the imagination work when it comes to the scarce props and the scene-setting on a disheveled old theatre stage. The senior Arthur Kipps (David Acton) has a burgeoning story to tell from his younger days, and has recruited the aid of ‘the actor’ (Matthew Spencer) to help him recount it.

And it is in this canny invitation to have the audience do some of the imaginative heavy lifting that Woman not only manages to elicit plenty of humour (see how it handles the need for a dog later on in the story), but it also quickly suspends much of the disbelief normally associated with the genre. The improvised wicker basket as a horse and cart. Acton’s Kipps taking on practically every ‘role’ save for his former self (which Spencer’s ‘actor’ plays). This is, for all intents and purposes, two actors on stage recreating two actors on stage recreating a trip from the past, which on paper sounds like it should create a disconnect, but instead it is this very simplicity that lends the show perhaps its greatest strength.

Woman in Black is not a consistently terrifying and relentlessly thrilling piece of theatre. Its first Act is slow-burning, character-building and exploratory, yet it is the slow but steady steps towards the darker stuff to come that make the occasional jump or fright all the more effective. The limited use of props makes the eventual reveal of more elaborate production design all the more impacting. Stephen Mallatratt’s adaptation of Susan Hill’s novel realises that audience burnout comes quick when it comes to overt horror and jump scares, so he, and director Robin Herford, use their frights sparingly, instead gradually upping the haunting ambience, slowly introducing an unsettling sense that even within the ‘real’ world we are seeing on stage something is not quite right, and holding out the full haunted house horrors for the latter half of the show. 

There’s a central mystery to the piece, too, one which also cleverly develops in both ‘worlds’ that the show presents. Whilst much of the narrative meat is also held back for the second Act, there’s plenty of intrigue and questions afloat by the time the interval rolls around, and whilst delving into any detail would spoil the show unduly, it’s all neatly character-centric. 

Visually, this new touring production is admirably close to the landmark London production, which now holds the prestige of being the second longest-running play in the West End. The impressive craftsmanship and ingenuity used to gradually reveal the secrets and surprises of Eel Marsh House is intact and impressive as ever, and Rod Mead’s ominous and at times genuinely terrifying sound design is in highly capable hands with Gareth Owen. Woman in Black understands the concept of ‘less is more’ beautifully, so when it does hit the audience with something audibly or visually, the effect is palpably frightening or disturbing.

It helps that the show is in such excellent hands with Acton and Spencer. The two carry the entire show on their shoulders, no mean feat for either, especially considering Acton’s requirement to play such a broad range of characters in the play-within-the-play (though a distinct accent for each helps). Both give fantastic and completely authentic turns, and it is their conviction that truly draws the audience in to the more minimalist vignettes on stage. By the second half, Spencer has us completely forgetting that what we are seeing on stage is, once again, an actor… playing an actor… playing a character, and instead immerses us completely in the horror of young Kipps’ ghostly fable.

The Woman in Black is a show that all theatre enthusiasts should see. If not for its at-times ingenious use of stagecraft and approach to theatre storytelling, if not for it being now a veritable institute in British theatre, if not for its terrific central performances and striking visual style, then simply for it being one of the creepiest and cleverest nights out at the theatre you are likely to see anytime soon. 

RATING - ★★★★

Tickets: 01902 429 212  / Official Website: click